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Fairness and Frankenwines
By W. Blake Gray
Apr 5, 2011
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"It's the most painful question I can hear," Jim Clendenen said.  As the journalist who asked it at "Pinot Noir:  In Pursuit of Balance," I could have done a victory dance.

What was the question?  Well, it wasn't about nuclear crises or Jim's high-school sweetheart.

Here's the setup:  Everybody who's anybody among the San Francisco wine press was at the "In Pursuit of Balance" seminar and tasting hosted by star sommelier Raj Parr. 

We were there to hear some of our favorite Pinot winemakers talk about "balance."  Wine experts -- me included -- have been bitching about mammoth Pinot Noirs that taste like Syrah for some time, so this topic was in our sweet spot.  If I wanted to write what everybody else writes, I would tell you how happy I am about this pursuit of balance -- for the next 800 words.  I am happy, but been there, done that.  Let's talk about the juicy bits.

Wells Guthrie, owner/winemaker of Copain Wine Cellars, was very honest in describing his own conversion to lighter wines.  He said in past years, because he doesn't own his vineyard, "if you get a heat spike and somebody can't pick it for you, I would be obligated to add water and acid."

So my pain-inducing question was this:  What is Okay to do, in pursuit of balance?  If you know a wine needs acid, can't you just add it?

Vanessa Wong, winemaker at Peay Vineyards, immediately said that her husband Nick Peay's purpose in farming was to prevent that from happening.  But what if it does, I insisted?

Clendenen got upset; he used naughty words, and I'm not counting "Frankenwine," which he used to castigate wines that are fixed like that in the winery.  Nick Peay got upset.  Acid shouldn't be added!  Neither should water! The exclamation points really were theirs.

I didn't see who asked the killer follow-up question, but I want to thank him.  Somebody in the back said, "What about chaptalization?"  That's the French practice of adding sugar to the must in years where the grapes don't get ripe enough.

Nick Peay said, "That's the end of ideology right there.  Lots of great Burgundies add sugar.  They have to."

Clendenen agreed:  "It's not a pure world.  The window for farming in Burgundy is so narrow." Good thing we were in San Francisco, where people regularly protest against actions taken by the United States; I could practically hear "La Marseillaise."

I often write a sentence that starts, "I am a patriot, but …" and then go on to say that Japanese sake is better than American, or Spain's Albariño and Tempranillo are better than California's.  Or something similar.

Now, I have no "but" (if you've seen "The Birdcage," I'm in good company, as John Wayne also had no butt.)  I am a patriot, and I'm calling their argument anti-American.

France's challenge is ripeness.  California's challenge is maintaining acidity.  I don't see why, when Mother Nature delivers a challenging vintage, adding what's needed in the winery is Okay in France but not in the land of Freedom Fries.

I'm not saying I love Frankenwines.  Wong is correct that good farming -- including planting the right grapes in the right areas -- should obviate the need for post-harvest fixes.  But I want fairness in the way these fixes are perceived.  I would rather drink a wine with acidity, even if it's added, than a flabby wine. 

That topic came up soon after:  Can you taste the difference?

Peay insists you can.  "There are great wines that have had chaptalization.  I haven't had a great wine with added acid." My rejoinder:  How do you know?

Guthrie, one of the few California winemakers I've ever heard admit to something many of them do, said, "If you add acid, it will show itself later.  The acidity may never stay in balance.  You make what appears to be the right adjustment at the time.  But at the end of the day, I have to pay my bills." He added, with some wistful jealousy, "There's something different about Burgundy.  They have this tension and nerve that I don't see in these Frankenwines."

Yes, we all hate Frankenwines.  But what are they? Would that include a "village wine" -- a blend of grapes from different vineyards, whether the listed region is Beaune or Sonoma County?  How about a Pinot Noir that has had its must concentrated by removing some pink juice, a technique called "saignée" (you'll note it's a French word)?

To be clear, I'm not saying that I am such a purist that I will only drink single-vineyard wines that have been picked at the perfect hour, fermented without additions and bottled.  As a wine geek, I would rather drink such wines, and many of my favorites could be described that way.  But Champagne, among my favorite wines in the world, is usually a blend of grapes purchased from different vineyards that has had sugar added for secondary fermentation.  If you don't like manipulation, you can't drink Champagne.  Poor you.

What I'm speaking out against here is, to paraphrase American right-wingers, "French exceptionalism."  Just because something isn't done in Burgundy -- in pursuit of balance -- doesn't make it wrong for Pinot Noir. 

Cue the Star Spangled Banner….